Selber and Critical Literacy

­­­­I had given Selber’s book a first read before the semester started, and now I’m sifting through many of the reviews that can be found on the book. Of particular note, in terms of a quote I might take from the text, and where I found myself (and see others) really leaning in, is a moment on page 80 when Selber says “computers often exacerbate the very inequities that technology is so frequently supposed to ameliorate.”

Trying to understand this idea in different ways, I’m reminded of a phenomenon economists speak of: skills bias, especially in the domain of technology. There are some views that look at technology as a great leveler, and (so long as there’s adequate access) inequities will decline as technology spreads. Other views, as I understand them, posit that those (individuals or countries) who are already technologically skilled have a big leg up on those who are low-skilled; the rich get richer, in other words, and the gap of inequality gets correspondingly bigger.

So, thinking more about what Selber has to say in terms of exacerbated inequities, I wonder how I might approach critical literacy of computers and technology in the classroom and in the larger institution. If fostering critical literacy of computers includes a process of becoming aware of and challenging those contexts, discourses, and arrangements in which we already encounter computers, I suppose it makes lots of sense to have conversations with students and others about some things that might otherwise seem mundane.

Default settings, for instance. In my own experience, I had often gone along with many default settings that had been initially established within software and applications I wanted to use. As I’ve grown more comfortable with computers and software applications (as my functional skills have grown), I’ve also become more likely to adjust default settings even before I install software. I’ve found this eliminates many distractions I might otherwise need to contend with as I use the software—no, I actually don’t want all of those useless, distracting, extra add-ins or extensions or promotional offers or free trials that I would otherwise have to deal with if I hadn’t learned to be less afraid of selecting the “Custom Settings” option instead of the “Default Settings (Recommended)” button. It may seem trivial, but these small moments of challenging authority have saved me major headaches.

Something else I’ve discovered, that could come in handy when engaging critical literacy in the classroom, is that a software applications’ “Help” mode is often much less useful than it should be. I find I often find answers to questions or solutions to obstacles by googling keywords that relate to the issue I’m facing. In other words, I imagine another part of critical literacy (which seems to bleed into functional literacy) may be becoming aware of all of the different options available to solve a technical problem, and that those who might proffer themselves as authorities on a technology might not be the most helpful when it come to figuring out how to use that technology (I find myself more often finding direct answers to many of the issues I face using MS Word or Excel not through the Microsoft website designed to assist users but instead through unassociated techie web forums.) The issues here, in terms of critical literacy, seem to revolve around power and authority at a very local level. One could waste many, many hours, and find him or herself falling further and further behind, if one is unaware that an ineffectual (though seemingly authoritative) tool may not be the only tool at his or her disposal.

At a broader level, I suppose discussing with students how the layouts of computer classrooms reinforce cultural roles may be fruitful as well. I’ve had brief conversations about layouts of workspaces with students when exploring how writing processes play out. Critical literacy, it would seem, would bring to conversation some of those issues I encountered in Because Digital Writing Matters in terms of the layout of computer classrooms. What does it say when we line up rows of computers facing a singular teacher station? What are we valuing in such a configuration? What are we neglecting? How do we want to set up our communal technological spaces? How do we want to set up our individual technological spaces? When we accept spaces as they are, do we accept, and maybe even exacerbate, inequitable relationships that already exist?


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